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Migrant Attempts Suicide After Forced to Interact With Alleged Abuser (Updated)

Tina Vasquez

“There are enough eyes looking at this that something should have happened already to make sure that Laura is in a safe place. No victim of sexual abuse should be forced to live with their abuser."

UPDATE, February 14, 10:16 a.m.: After being interviewed by the FBI about her sexual assault allegations against a Hutto guard, Laura Monterrosa alleges she was placed in solitary confinement for 60 hours as retaliation from ICE. Monterrosa says a Hutto guard is demanding she no longer work with Grassroots Leadership and that unless she recants her claims of sexual assault, she will be placed in solitary “indefinitely.”

An asylum-seeking Salvadoran woman, whose allegations of repeated sexual assault by a guard at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Texas went largely ignored, has attempted suicide. 

Laura Monterrosa, who has been detained at Hutto since May 2017 and alleges her abuse began in June, first went public with her allegations in November, leading to a supposed investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office.

In the days that followed, other women detained inside Hutto came forward with allegations of abuse. But after two interviews with officials from ICE and Williamson County in which there was a language barrier and Monterrosa initially wasn’t allowed access to counsel, ICE unceremoniously announced that it found Monterrosa’s allegations to be “unsubstantiated.” The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has since confirmed it intervened in the investigation of sexual assault allegations emerging from the long-troubled detention center.

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Monterrosa has maintained that her abuser remains employed at Hutto. In a November 17 interview with Rewire, Monterrosa said she last saw her abuser “about 20 minutes ago.” Grassroots Leadership, an immigrant rights organization that runs a visitation program inside Hutto enabling volunteers to visit with women detained in the facility, reports that it was these forced encounters with her abuser that lead Monterrosa on January 11 to “take 51 pain pills that were left in her possession by medical staff.”

“This case is heartwrenching; we learned from Laura that she attempted to kill herself just after learning that she was going to be punished because she refused to eat in the same cafeteria where her abuser is now assigned.” Claudia Muñoz, immigration programs director at Grassroots Leadership, said in a statement. “It’s just inhumane to force this victim of sexual abuse to have to relive that abuse everyday by being forced to confront her abuser over and over again. Laura can’t escape this pain, she can’t get the treatment she needs.”

Both ICE and CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, neglected to provide Monterrosa with medical treatment in the hours immediately after her suicide attempt, according to Grassroots Leadership. CoreCivic is a private prison company with a long history of human rights abuses. The company contracts with ICE to operate detention centers, including Hutto, a prison that has a long history of subjecting immigrant women to sexual abuse.

After attempting suicide, Monterrosa was able to access care at a local hospital, but upon being returned to Hutto, she was placed in solitary confinement.

During her eight-month detainment at Hutto, Monterrosa has twice experienced “medical confinement,” which is what advocates say ICE and private prison companies like CoreCivic use as a form of solitary confinement. Part of the reason Monterrosa initially hesitated to go forward with her allegations was out of fear of being subjected to solitary confinement, a practice known to exacerbate trauma and mental health issues.

A 2016 report from Human Rights Watch, which analyzed the deaths of 18 people who died in ICE custody, highlighted the cases of  Tiombe Kimana Carlos, Clemente Mponda, and Jose de Jesus Deniz Sahagun, all of whom committed suicide after demonstrating signs of serious mental health conditions. The experts consulted for the report concluded that inadequate mental health care or the misuse of isolation may have exacerbated their mental health problems.

“I feel very desperate because I tried to report the abuse from ICE and facility officials, but they continue to psychologically abuse me through intimidation. I do not feel safe or secure. I am not receiving the medical treatment or help I need,” Monterrosa said in a Grassroots Leadership statement released Sunday.

Asylum-seeking migrant women like Monterrosa are often fleeing gender-based violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. These countries, known as the Northern Triangle, are some of the most dangerous to be a woman, with female homicide rates among the highest in the world, according to the Washington Office on Latin America.

Migrant women who have experienced trauma in their countries of origin and en route to the United States—where an estimated 80 percent of girls and women are raped on their journey—often encounter more abuse and neglect in the U.S. immigration system. Sexual abuse and harassment in detention centers often goes uninvestigated. In April, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on behalf of 27 people who were in immigration detention or had been released from detention and who say they experienced sexual abuse.

CIVIC analyzed data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request regarding sexual assault reports from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The information showed that the OIG received at least 1,016 reports of sexual abuse filed by people in detention between May 2014 and July 2016—that’s more than one complaint of sexual abuse made each day. Of these 1,016 reports of sexual abuse, the OIG investigated 24.

Conditions for people in detention are only expected to worsen under the Trump administration, which is expanding the detention system while reducing the standards of care within these deadly facilities. Trump has emboldened federal immigration agencies like ICE, which received preliminary approval for its request to begin destroying the records of detained people, including those related to in-custody deaths, sexual assault, and the use of solitary confinement.

Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, said in a statement that what is happening to Monterrosa has been “swept under the rug.” Advocates are calling on Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to look into the allegations emerging from Hutto.

“There are enough eyes looking at this that something should have happened already to make sure that Laura is in a safe place. No victim of sexual abuse should be forced to live with their abuser,” Bethany Carson, immigration researcher and organizer at Grassroots Leadership, said in a statement. “We are asking Sen. Cornyn in the name of the rule of law to ask that ICE immediately release Laura pending this investigation.”

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